Revenge Tragedy and the Vengeance Mob: Opposing Modern Cancel Culture

“Death Upsets the Table and Strikes at the Gamblers with a Spade” — Edward Hull

As a graduate student studying dramatic revenge tragedies, I sometimes wondered how a society could think up such tangled plots and what the utility might be. The basic wisdom is that tragedy serves an important psychological function, that of catharsis. It allows people, a society even, to purge their rage and fear safely without weakening their honor. Enacted tragedy also safeguards against action that would result in ruinous acts. It comments on the dangers of largesse, the vanity of mistaking God’s hand as one’s own. Whatever basic function we might agree on, the critical element of revenge tragedies is that they are extremely creative. Some may bristle, feeling stifled by the five-act plot, but the creativity seeps in line by line, each gesture, intonation, positioning, and prop multiplying the possibility of understanding beyond what is experienced in a surface reading or viewing. The symbols, signs, codes, and dynamics of revenge tragedies echo with meanings several levels deep, step by step, and although the outcome is much the same, either everyone ends up dead on stage, or the characters that viewers have grown attached to find some sort of deeply troubling end, the richness of the unfolding still remains. To think of revenge tragedies as facile exercises demonstrating only the downside of personal retribution is to oversimplify and lose an opportunity for self-reflection even if it is in the sense of self within society.

Of course, revenge has always been a bloody business, and most people would agree that the benefits of discouraging it outweigh the short-term payoff; as the dominoes fall in a revenge plot, the truth is that no one wins. The avenger has still been wounded by his own malevolent action. The person who has been afflicted by the revenge tastes bitter deserts. The luxurious dishes of the banquet hall have lost their savor as tears of wine drip down the faces of the emotionally wrecked diners who contemplate if they too may have drank some of the poison. One bad turn generates another, a cycle of bloodshed and ill will draws up force like a cyclone set to destroy anything on its path. Tick Tock, a clock strikes, and the tension of the pendulum sways from one side to another perpetually. The best and brightest join the Danse Macabre and wear masks displaying Death’s versatility of appearance.

The Gods look on, annoyed that the universal order and balance has been upset, and they were not, or perhaps just barely, invited. Part of what makes something tragic is the absence of God, the divine. It is a cold world where so much evil might befall good people. Even when evils fall upon the people who actually deserve it, when it is dealt without reason, it can spiral out of control, a chilling display that denies the wrongdoer a chance for redemption. The popular tune today is the nihilistic one, one that frames the revenge tragedy as commentary on the absence of God. Yet another take is that the gods are there but do not care. Their higher substance attunes them with all potentialities, and the bloodshed of man, whether real or semiotic, is at a volume they can not or will not hear. The direct, wise, and forceful interceding hand of divine authority never intervenes, and pointless loss, obsessive hurt, and the downfall of kingdoms result.

“Who cares?” some reader might question, or a reader may scornfully say to me from behind his screen that, “Western culture is irrelevant; it is dead. It is time for new heroes, living heroes.” Meanwhile, the average man dips his toes in pools of spite, sprinkling malediction into cyber and real-life discussion alike, avenging know-it-alls who disagree. The common man wears cyber anonymity while decrying what is perceived as offense without contemplating the irritants and afflictions that affect every mortal life. This hostility toward the opposition may meander into a passive aggressive revenge cycle all its own. Outside the cyber realm of cancel culture rancor, those quick to find fault engage in faults all their own, whether cutting off the person with a disliked political sticker or putting raw pork amongst the bananas. I wouldn’t want to imagine you, oh reader or even myself, as so petty. Instead, I will give you the benefit of the doubt, but I see revenge tragedy all around me. It is the melodrama of cancel culture, self-righteous warriors of virtue willing to say and do terrible things to fight against what they perceive as an egregious wrong, and the opposition pushes back, tide in, tide out. It starts with words, moves on to blows, and the next thing that happens is statues come tumbling down, books start burning, and the shadows of our imaginings take on sinister dimensions — all justified as the better to destroy evils, the better to destroy those who dare to slight.

Perhaps it is more of a tragic-comedy, and those taking part in mob hysteria will come to their senses and put down the torches which are meant to symbolize light rather than wasted resources but burn more smoke than illumination. The wrath that everyone was breathing dissipates, and everyone would have a good chuckle about the mistakes they made. In the tumult, the chorus would chant, “The din was too loud to hear everything the accused had to say. In the collision of life upon life, no set image could instill itself as pure. Thus, each image assumed a façade that had to be torn apart.” After the chorus summarizes the tragic plot, citizen and citizen would rebuild the bloody stage, remove the jagged arrow from the pauper’s heart, pour the poison out the window, and exchange ideas civilly, evenly, and logically. The trauma responses that need to vent would vent in other ways rather than the spray of spit from the troll who lacks self-awareness. There is no perfect world, but in this vision, the good, the bad, and the ugly find a way to draw the poison from the social wound before the deep rot begins. The tragic would turn comedic even if the resulting world still bore the black paint of witch-burning soot, evidence of the cyclical and somewhat blood thirsty mob hysteria that people were a part of but could not See.

Whatever fate the greater world creates for itself, I do hope it is for the best even as the play moves through its inevitable seasons. Perhaps now is the time for intercession, taking a draught of reality rather than a venomous philtre. Revenge tragedies are not outdated but rather of extreme importance in the era of exaggerated concern for virtue, an exaggeration so extreme that it corrupts[1]. The church, the gods, that which is spiritually elevated isn’t the gauge for the times, having been replaced by popular secularism. The civic order, the P.C. agenda, state control masquerading as care, these forces are the stuff of a religion devoid of God, one lacking self-awareness but not diminished of zeal and the blind fervor that comes with being self-satisfied arbiters of what is “right.” The retribution of the law, balanced and with limits, still functions, but more common is the revenge of the subjective mob, canceling what they do not understand, rejecting any petition for open-mindedness, and exercising no care at the destruction they bring to other people. Their vengeance knows no time limit and has no boundary. The vengeance mob hunts opposing voices and does not stop at simply disagreeing with them. They destroy reputations, ruin businesses, dismantle relationships, and taint conversations, bruising the fruit of what would have been ripe discourse. It is only by studying the movement of the revenge tragedy that we may better see ourselves, our dynamics, and our world, aiding us in recognizing the tragedy unfolding for what it is before it darkens more lives with the shadow of oppression.

[1] As attributed to Michael S. Moore, author of Placing Blame: A Theory of the Criminal Law, in Zaibert, Leo. “Punishment and Revenge.” Law and Philosophy. 25.1. (Jan. 2006). P 81–118.

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The Metafictionalist

The Metafictionalist

Writer, editor, educator, and obscurity enthusiast